The Success Mindset for ADHD Procrastinators, Dreamers & Survivors
Just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean it’s not within your power. This is the basic tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy, a common and empowering alternative treatment for adults with ADHD. Here, ADD experts recommend CBT strategies for boosting self-esteem, productivity, and focus. Better habits are ahead.
“I can’t do that.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“I just don’t have the time.”
“But what if I fail?”
The reasons for not pursuing our dreams are plentiful and formidable — but rarely as hard to defeat as we assume. The hardest part? Training our brains to assume the best, not the worst. This is where cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) enters the picture.
“Be more mindful when you face a difficult situation, or when you notice your emotions changing for the worse,” suggests Russell Ramsay, Ph.D.. “Reflect on the thoughts and pictures going through your mind, and how these thoughts affect the way you feel, and what you’re doing as a consequence. Is there evidence that these thoughts are true? Is there a more helpful, realistic way to think about it?”
Here, we dissect five of the more common barriers standing between individuals with ADHD and their own personal success, and suggest a CBT strategy or two for combating each one.
Challenge #1: ADHD Procrastination Fueled by Self-Doubt
Many people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) put off paying bills, completing chores, and doing other things they consider boring. But others put off doing tasks they are convinced they cannot do — often because of past experience. If you’ve failed at something many times in the past, you may be reluctant to try again.
Solution #1: Ask Yourself, ‘Why Not?’
“Ask yourself what you are assuming will happen if you try,” Ramsay says. “Is there another way this could possibly turn out? If a friend had ADHD, how would you advise and encourage him? Why assume that the same thing wouldn’t work for you?”
Solution #2: Do Less… No, Even Less
Another way to beat procrastination is to cut tasks into pieces. If going through a pile of papers makes you think, “I’ll never get it all done,” commit to going through half the pile.
“Keep reducing the piece of the task until you can say, ‘I can do this easily,'” advises Mary Solanto, Ph.D., director of the ADHD Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “Once you get started, you may be buoyed by the results and continue spontaneously.”
Solution #3: Set a Timer for 10
A similar approach is the “10-minute rule.” Commit to working at a large job for only 10 minutes. Tell yourself you can stop after that, guilt-free. Since getting started is often the hardest part, you’re likely to keep going. That will give you a sense of accomplishment, not to mention a smaller job to finish.
Challenge #2: To-Do Lists That Linger Forever
“People make to-do lists but never commit to doing things at a particular time on a particular day,” says Mary Solanto, Ph.D.. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD, she says, “We have a saying: ‘If it’s not in the planner, it doesn’t exist.’ We ask people to schedule the things they want to accomplish, and tell them to carry the planner with them at all times.”
Solution #1: Buy a Notebook
Keep all your to-do lists in a single notebook. Link checking it to routine activities, like brushing your teeth, eating lunch, walking the dog, and so on. That way, you’ll check the lists regularly.
Challenge #3: Maintaining Focus Amid ADHD Distractions
Solution #1: Write It, Forget It
To focus more easily, Dr. Steven Safren recommends the following: Each time you sit down to tackle a boring task, set a timer for as long as you think you’ll be able to stay focused. Whenever a distracting thought comes to mind (typically, something else you need to do), jot it down in a notebook. Tell yourself, “I’ll do this later,” then go back to work.
When the timer goes off, review your list. If the items you wrote down don’t need to be dealt with right away, work a bit longer on the task. Go back to your list at the end of the day.
Solution #2: Highlight Your Trouble Zones
Another way to stay focused, says Safren, is to place colored stickers on sources of distraction, like the telephone or computer. Each time you spot a dot, ask yourself, “Am I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing?”
Challenge #4: Achieving Long-Term Goals with No Immediate Rewards
People with ADHD have trouble achieving long-term goals. And no wonder: It can take years to save for a new home, whereas splurging on a new outfit feels good right away. This kind of thinking can lead to a lifetime of unfulfilled ambitions.
Solution #1: Visualize the Taste, Feel & Smell of Success
“You have to make distant rewards more present,” says Solanto. “One way to do this is by visualization. Imagine what it would be like to accomplish your goal, until it becomes so real, so visceral, you can almost taste it.”
A student who is tempted away from writing a paper by friends who want to party might think ahead to how good it would feel to ace the course.
Challenge #5: Self-Esteem Trampled by ADHD Defeats
Years of low self-esteem engender a defeatist attitude: If you’re no good at it, why try? “People tend to focus on their weaknesses, and overlook their strengths,” says Lily Hechtman, M.D., director of ADHD research in the child psychiatry department at McGill University in Montreal.
Solution #1: Make Some Lists
To overcome this problem, she recommends writing a list of your positive attributes — things that other people might consider your strengths. Then identify one personal shortcoming — and do something about it.
For example, if you seldom finish projects, come up with a task that takes several days. Set a deadline, and do your best to meet it. Each incremental success gives your self-image a boost.
What’s Next: Tame and Track Your Inner Voice
If you run into trouble putting these strategies into action, tune in to your inner voice. Is it saying, “I just know this won’t work, it never did before”? If so, ask yourself why it didn’t work. Figure out what you need to do differently. Commit to trying the new approach for a week before deciding it’s not worth the effort.
To track your inner voice, keep a daily “thought record.” Divide a sheet of paper into five columns. Use column one to record the thoughts that come up in a problem situation, column two to describe the situation itself, column three to list the feelings aroused by the thoughts, column four to list the thought distortions you can identify, and column five to list more realistic thoughts.
Give yourself credit where credit is due. If you catch yourself belittling one of your achievements, recognize this as the distortion it is. When you meet a goal, reward yourself with a special meal or another indulgence.